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Not many entrepreneurs coast through their first year in business. Especially in the highly competitive food world. Setting up a food business is an exciting time, but it’s fraught with challenges. Whether it’s the branding, product development, sales or distribution, moving through the gears from the euphoria of an idea to building a sustainable business is rarely anything but a taxing journey.
Pacing yourself and setting realistic goals is a good strategy to avoid too much disappointment. Stephanie Peritore launched healthy nut butter company, Mindful Bites, in February 2017, but only after 18 months of fine tuning the product development.
Taking her time paid off. “I think we got the products right and the brand seems to be speaking the language of our target audience,” says Peritore. But she underestimated how long it can take to have an innovative product, like her nut butter sachets, listed in a traditional retailer – from the initial meeting to the product being on the shelf took several long months.
“You have to work very closely with the retailer and distributor and factor in marketing, distribution costs, promotions and free-fills to the price,” says Peritore. The end result needs to be commercially viable for the business. “I have walked away from conversations which ultimately would have put the business at risk of losing money.”
When Tim van Berkel and Caro Warwick-Evans decided to set up The Cornish Seaweed Company in 2012 they thought it would be a simple case of harvest seaweed, dry it, put it in a bag and sell it. “It turned out that nobody knew how to cook with it, let alone wanted to eat or try it,” says van Berkel. “I think we were a bit optimistic in what we thought we could achieve. The regulatory process, and actually running a food business with all the health and safety conditions attached, turned out to be a lot harder than anticipated.”
It was draining, too. In the early days they would borrow a friend’s bakery to pack seaweed in the evenings until almost midnight. “Neither of us was paid for a few years, and we didn’t see much growth or return,” says van Berkel. “That is disheartening. The only reason we got through that hard phase was because there were people and organisations that believed in what we did and supported us.”
Elsa Valentine and Tess Walker, founders of Innate Food’s square vegetable snacks, wandered into their first year with a strong core concept, some product ideas and an untamed readiness for adventure. “We optimistically envisaged that our small-scale experimentation and product development would seamlessly translate into larger scale production and we were excited to get out there and introduce our new brand and products to all who would listen… we didn’t have a set idea on exactly how far we’d get, but were just very clear on our principles and ultimate vision.”
Amid all the excitement and energy, the early stages of a food start-up are a good time to iron out ‘teething’ problems. What might seem like a nuisance to get right in the short-term can reap dividends over time. And having a core mission and vision that you believe in can prove invaluable when deciding how to tackle these problems.
In Peritore’s case she was concerned about the pouch format of one of her products. “It was not as eco-friendly as it could have been. Pouches require a lot of air and transporting air was something that went against my personal ethos and the values the brand was built on. So, I went back to the drawing board and redesigned the packaging which led to a reformulation of the product.”
It’s a challenging junctions like these that companies have to be agile and make the decision to persevere or pivot on the test in front of them. “I always try to understand why something might not work, refocus and come back with a stronger proposition,” says Ben Whitehead, founder of Sparefruit, which he set up in 2016 to make air-dried fruit crisps from surplus produce.
Innate’s Valentine and Walker looked on ‘failures’ as opportunities for accelerated learning. “We made a fair few assumptions and merrily overlooked some critical variables within our process which tripped us up in due course, but it was a fascinating process,” says Valentine.
Many food entrepreneurs agree on the benefits of seeking guidance from experienced others. “Getting a mentor is great,” says Peritore, “but also foster relationships with people just one or two steps ahead of you as they will know first-hand what you are going through and can provide precious pragmatic advice.”
“When I face setbacks I try to think laterally and to surround myself with amazing people and mentors,” says Sydney Chasin, who started working on The Healthy Crop as a ‘side hustle’ during her final year of university. She launched her first brand, lil’POP snack, in February.
“It’s so easy to get tunnel visioned when difficult hurdles arise, but creative, sideways, out-of-the-box thinking helps overcome them. Having industry figures who have been through similar challenges at the other end of the phone has helped streamline solutions,” adds Chasin.
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